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Banda Aceh, 10 Years Post-Tsunami

July 14, 2014

I was in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, last week. Traveling with Larry Vale, professor of urban design and planning at MIT and director of the Resilient Cities Housing Initiative (RCHI), and Shomon Shamsuddin, postdoctoral research fellow at RCHI, we were there to observe the progress of housing development ten years after the 2014 Indian Ocean Tsunami. We visited Banda Aceh at the invitation of Teuku Alvisyahrin, of the Tsunami and Disaster Mitigation Research Center.

Aceh Tsunami Museum

Aceh Tsunami Museum

Banda Aceh, although now relatively well-known because of the disaster and subsequent recovery effort, still lies quite far from either mainstream travel itineraries or much international development and planning conversations. Add to that lingering concerns, perpetuated by the slim amount of news of the area, about continued political challenges and the recent implementation of sharia law. It’s not necessarily somewhere one just happens to end up.

The tsunami in 2004 devastated the region, and wiped out large parts of this city. The waves, more than 20 meters high (65 ft), not only leveled the majority of built structures in the affected areas, it reshaped the land itself. Now, Banda Aceh is widely held as a successful reconstruction effort. Indeed, recovery – at least of the built environment – seems rapid and ongoing. Throughout the area, we saw thousands of new homes – all more or less of a kind, small, single-family, modest houses built by scores of NGOs. Ten years on many of the developments feel lived in, changing, and alive.

Source of beauty and destruction

Source of beauty and destruction

Mangrove rehabilitation efforts

Mangrove rehabilitation efforts

Destroyed house at PLTD ship memorial site

Destroyed house at PLTD ship memorial site

That said, they’re also not all the same. Some neighborhoods have clearly grown more organically, in a more interwoven manner, than others. We visited a “model” village, neat houses surrounding a comparably mammoth evacuation building. The only structure older than ten years was a partially destroyed two-plus storey house (see photo below), evidently left in this state as a memorial. We saw growing, changing neighborhoods, including, notably, areas accented with distinctly elevated houses by the nonprofit group UPLINK that had been filled in, added to, increasingly transformed. There were also developments that looked more monotonous and disconnected, showing less regard for existing community and livelihood networks.

Top of the evacuation building

Top of the evacuation building

Lambung from evacuation building. Ochre house at right is the only structure pre-dating the tsunami

Lambung from evacuation building. Ochre house at right is the only structure pre-dating the tsunami

From the top of the Tsunami and Disaster Mitigation Research Center, itself an evacuation building

From the top of the Tsunami and Disaster Mitigation Research Center, itself an evacuation building

kids road

Children play on the unpaved roads of a new housing area

The so-called Kampung Jackie Chan, or more officially Kampung Persahabatan Indonesia-Tiongkok (Indonesia-Tiongkok Friendship Village), funded an built by Chinese charities and contractors

The so-called Kampung Jackie Chan, or more officially Kampung Persahabatan Indonesia-Tiongkok (Indonesia-Tiongkok Friendship Village), funded and built by Chinese charities and contractors

And the growing of new community networks continues, quite literally. We heard stories about orphaned children with rights to houses but not yet old enough to live in them.

It was incredibly sobering to witness villages in which less than a fifth of their original residents survived, the survivors talking about those that perished with a directness that certainly belies the trauma that must have followed this massive destruction. At the end of our visit we visited the largest of the mass grave sites, now the final resting place for more than 46,000 people. How does one comprehend such numbers?

Mass grave at Lambaro

Mass grave at Lambaro

old site - new house

Old footprint, new house

Another powerful facet of the story is the ways in which social relationships changed following such a large scale disaster and the subsequent recovery efforts. Banda Aceh turned into a center of intense NGO activity in the years after the tsunami, NGO expense budgets fueling a not-quite-real environment and economy that I imagine a place like Haiti to be in all the time. Residents also talked about the likely permanent shift in culture over the years, with multi-gender, late night cafe hangouts and WiFi hotspots now quite normal.

Acehnese snacks at Solong Cafe

Acehnese snacks at Solong Cafe

Over the coming months the RCHI team will be doing our part to understand better the role of housing in this recovery – what worked well, and what challenges remain. For now, I feel fortunate to have come at this particular time, soon enough to perceive the palpable enormity of the tragedy, far enough along to sense long-term impacts and real change.

Many thanks to Alvis, whose knowledge, hospitality, and planning made this visit invaluable and memorable.

Photo of the Day: Waduk Pluit, Jakarta

July 14, 2014

Waduk Pluit, Jakarta

Waduk Pluit, close to the north coast of Jakarta, is essentially a very large catchment basin, into which canals drain before being pumped out into the Jakarta Bay. Over the last year and a half, it has been under an intensive development effort, with hundreds of informal kampung settlement houses demolished and cleared from one of its banks, the residents largely moved into nearby low-income housing blocks. The cleared area is now a new park, named Taman Kota Waduk Pluit (Pluit City Park) but popularly known as “Taman Jokowi” after the current governor of Jakarta (and likely new president of Indonesia, see previous post.)

Here, heavy machinery sits at the edge, between new park, existing kampungs, the waduk waters.

Elections in Indonesia

July 12, 2014

Jakarta, July 9, 2014

Sentiments on view at Bunderan HI

Sentiments on view at Bunderan HI

Indonesia conducted its presidential elections the day after I arrived in Jakarta this week. In the world’s third largest democracy, with 183 million registered voters and polling stations across 7,000 islands, this is a huge affair. But not just in scale – it has also been billed as the first Indonesian presidential election that could push it past its ties to Suharto’s authoritarian 32-year reign that ended in 1998.

The election offers stark differences: Joko Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi), the current governor of Jakarta, a populist in style and tone and reformer, against ex-general Prabowo Subianto, once Suharto’s son-in-law, who was dismissed from the military for abducting and torturing pro-democracy activists at the end of the Suharto era.

(To me, even with some valid criticism of Jokowi, there hardly seems to be a choice here! Jokowi’s governorship in Jakarta, hardly two years old, has already shifted and opened up the relationship between citizens and government. To do this on a national scale could bring about a real sea change in Southeast Asia – pun completely intended.)

I felt particularly privileged to witness this historic event in person. Walking around two kampungs (here, loosely, semi-formal urban villages) along the notorious Ciliwung River, where I am conducting research on community design in the face of climate change, I saw a number of polling stations handle their duties quietly and efficiently. Voters were eager to display their ink-tipped fingers showing that they had voted.

Voting station, Bukit Duri, Jakarta

Voting station, Bukit Duri, Jakarta

Voting station, Bukit Duri, Jakarta

Ballot box

Voting station, Bukit Duri, Jakarta

Finger inking

The political persuasions in the kampungs were, like the country at large, mixed. A group of young men enthusiastically declared their support for the former military leader Prabowo, saying he was berani (brave) and tangguh (strong). Nearby one could see banners and posters promoting Jokowi as a man of the people, proclaiming that he spent just about 100,000 IDR (approx. US$8.50) on each item of clothing.

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Flyer proclaiming Jokowi the people's choice for president

Flyer proclaiming Jokowi the people’s choice for president

Later in the day, I was in a taxi (frequent place to find one’s self in in Jakarta) when the announcement came over the radio that Jokowi had won the “quick count” vote tally. My taxi driver expressed surprise and nervousness at the speed of the announcement, saying that he himself preferred Jokowi, but that they needed to do this right.

Jokowi asserts his (presumed) victory

Jokowi asserts his (presumed) victory

Three days later, the results are still not clear. Both candidates have proclaimed victory, citing conflicting count tallies. Most legitimate sources appear to show a Jokowi win. Final results will be announced on July 22.

Jokowi supporters celebrate at Bunderan HI the evening of the election

Jokowi supporters celebrate at Bunderan HI the evening of the election

Police assemble after quietly dispersing celebrating Jokowi supporters at Bunderan HI in Jakarta

Police assemble after quietly dispersing crowds at Bunderan HI in Jakarta

Other views on the election:
Economist, pre-election
New York Times, post-election
Guardian, post-election
“Jokowi meets foreign press as fraud fears loom,” Jakarta Post, July 11, 2014

Van Nelle in Rotterdam

July 12, 2014

Finally got to visit the Van Nelle factory building in Rotterdam, designed by architects Leendert van der Vlugt and Johannes Brinkman and completed in 1931. It’s been somewhat over-sprucely renovated in the last decade, and now houses a rather predictable assortment of new media companies, law firms, and other facets of the higher-end “creative” economy. The architecture itself left me speechless, astounded.

van nelle1

 

van nelle window

van nelle4

van nelle3

van nelle2

Three Views of Bangkok

July 12, 2014

From a recent short visit to Bangkok.

bangkok_embassy mall

bangkok_houses

bangkok_street

Questions on “Smart Cities”

April 29, 2013

kian goh_smart cities urban logo

In the 1960s and 70s, technology companies took flight from the cities and set up in suburban corporate parks, dreaming up the information systems that would enable further decentralization, prompting Melvin Webber to proclaim the “post-city age” in 1968. Now, global cities threaded by optical fiber and lit up by sensors, hotspots, and RFID tags herald the techno-urban revolution. “Smart cities” are lauded as emancipatory, a new “urban age” in which intelligent systems increase quality of life and alleviate ecological damage. But “smart cities” also imply new spaces of control and ownership, new frontiers in the privatization of urban space, a “virtual enclosures.” The ultimate potential, it appears, is the control of urban practice itself. What, then, will become of the “right to urban life,” as exhorted by Henri Lefebvre?

What are the real-world impacts of real-time intelligent urban systems? To what extent do “smart city” projects constitute new “virtual” and physical enclosures of urban public space in the globalized, capitalist city? And, as we increasingly submit to real-time information gathering and our means of decision-making become more and more intertwined with the networks of urban systems, how is urban “public” experience transformed?

Logo: “urban” with the “u” enclosed like an @.

Violence and Cities

April 19, 2013

(An entire metropolitan area is on “lockdown” l as I write this. It is surreal, tense, and really makes clear the unnatural state quiet and emptiness is to the urban.)

Twelve years ago, I was literally on the Williamsburg Bridge between Brooklyn and Manhattan as planes hit the World Trade Center towers. On Monday, I was just across the Charles River, in my office at MIT, when two explosions brought the Boston Marathon to a tragic end. Of course, there is no parallel in scale, and no attempt here to compare possible motives. What strikes me is the intense unsettlement that follows such attacks that I, as someone not directly affected by either event, felt in the long months after 9-11, and again as I biked back down Massachusetts Avenue to MIT the morning after the attacks on Monday.

Image

John Hancock building, near Copley Square, Boston

Not directly affected, of course, except by the sense of collective mourning, mediated through the “city.” We all extend our sympathies when these events happen, whether we live in or near Boston, across the continent, or the ocean. But I think this feeling of acute unsettlement manifests itself specifically in the city that is attacked. It is like a fabric that is stretched and distorted, tearing at the seams. While in my own research I’m part of a team of people trying to question and dismantle the ideological distinctions between city and non-city, in everyday life this close-knit urban fabric that binds all of us in the Boston/Cambridge/Somerville/Brookline “city” seems not to be denied. It is why it is so meaningful to so many when small acts like shining a NY<3B symbol on the Brooklyn Academy of Music building.

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Projection on Brooklyn Academy of Music building, image via illuminator99 on Twitter

I often think about political scientist Iris Marion Young’s exhortation, in “City Life and Difference,” that the city is potentially a place of “difference without exclusion,” and “unassimilated otherness.” That, in its ideal form, urban life offers us the chance to be different together.

That chance is threatened, of course, when targeted violence strikes the city. There were many moving accounts of people rushing towards the blasts to help, many demonstrations of sympathy and selflessness. But it’s also clear that there is increased tension, fear, suspicion. Do events like Monday’s bombings make us, on the whole, more likely to embrace difference, uncertainty, unknowing? Or do they sow seeds of fear and hate, in spite of our better judgement?

It is coming to light that among the many incredible, heroic acts on Boylston Street right after the bombing was an act of racial profiling. After the attack there were numerous calls from President Obama down not to jump to conclusions about the attacker(s) and motives. Perhaps this is commendable, but not if we realize it’s only necessary because many have jumped to conclusions in the past, to deadly effect. Instances of racism in the Boston area and elsewhere have already begun. (And more.)

This tragic event will no doubt be followed by attempts to increase policing, surveillance, and control of Boston public spaces and events. One can hardly fault the authorities, or the residents, for wanting more security. But such enforcement is unlikely to stop all attacks of this sort. Urban life is dynamic, and it is messy. Accidents are commonplace, anonymity and secrecy often desirable things in the urban, no one can know everything.

So how do we move forward? I’m left thinking that we won’t be able to stop violence in American cities, and the harm it renders to possible urban ideals as envisioned by those like I.M. Young, without a concerted effort to stop violence everywhere else. Acts of violence do not really strike me as random and senseless, even though we perpetually describe them as such. They result from anger and hate, from rational and irrational passions, instabilities, and oppressions.

I think it would be a particularly constructive thing for us (who, for the most part, aspire to progressive or liberal democratic ideals) to reject and resist increased policing, surveillance, and control of our urban spaces, and as well make a deliberate effort to undo, as much as we can, our complicity in other acts of violence, particularly that which is wrought in our name, for our supposed security –

I.M. Young ends her piece with a call for democratization and empowerment at a regional urban scale. I think this is true, but we must scale up even more. A recent piece on the neoliberal market forces driving extreme global inequality made a clear point: if we are going to have a global economy, we must have global democratic oversight. So, along similar lines: in a globalized world, with globalized violence, what kind of radical, global democratization and empowerment movement must we have? How do we get there?

Friday night update:

The second suspect has apparently been caught. The most intense part of this week and these events is likely over.

Justin Davidson at New York Magazine has an interesting piece on whether a city-wide lockdown is really a good thing in this case.

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